Thursday, 24 July 2014

Dartford parkrun (course preview)

Just a few short months ago, this parkrun venue was just an idea in a tweet, And now after lots of hard work it is finally almost time to launch Dartford parkrun. I have been involved in getting this one up and running, but apart from a lot of running around the park testing out different route ideas, I don't really feel like I've done that much. The main credit has to go to event director Richey and to the parkrun ambassador for Kent, Jacky MacDonald. Dartford council and Dartford Harriers have also been instrumental in making this a reality.

central park

The run takes place in Central Park, Dartford. It is right in the town centre and is easily accessible by train via Dartford train station. If you do travel here by train, you might be interested to know that after losing touch after primary school, platform 2 is the very place that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards met and what followed is rock 'n' roll history. From the station it is about a ten minute walk to the meeting point in the park. One of the main reasons for having the run in this park was the central location, with the hope that the local people that stand to benefit the most can easily reach the venue.

a general view

Dartford is also well served by buses, most of which stop right opposite the main entrance to the park. Anyone who cycles will find some bicycle racks in the centre of the park outside the park's elegant looking cafe building. It's not right near the start/finish so I expect cyclists will use one of the fences around Dartford Harriers athletics track. The athletics club are based at the track in Central Park and thanks to the support from their President, Tony Durey, the clubhouse will become the central point for parkrunners to meet, use the toilets, and enjoy some refreshments afterwards.

central park athletics track

In 1984, the Central Park athletics track was the venue of Zola Budd's first UK appearance. The track was still cinder at this point. The meet drew crowds of 5,000 and ignited the interest of the UK media, with the race broadcast live on BBC's Grandstand. She set the Central Park women's track record over 3,000 metres that day. The time was 9:02.06, a record which still stands to this day. Dartford Harriers are the hosts of the Dartford Half-Marathon, which is the longest, most-continually held road race in Kent.

the view from the start line (athletics track on the right)

The run starts in between the two trees outside the Dartford Harriers clubhouse. The course is a two lapper and takes in all of the park's areas and lets runners see all of the park's features. It is mostly run on tarmac or other similar hard surfaces, but there is a stretch that leaves the tarmac in favour of grass and a dirt trail. It is largely a flat course, but not completely. In dry conditions it will still be a fast course.

darent valley path

The first section sees the runners heading off along the path adjacent to the athletics track. The runners continue onto the gravelly path and then, on lap one, turn left at the corner. The next section forms part of the Darent Valley Path. It meanders nicely through the trees and the vigilant runners might catch a glimpse of the River Darent on their right hand side. There's a small bump and right hand turn to negotiate as the course takes the runners across The EllenorLions bridge (or bridges).

the river darent and the bridge that runners cross as part of the route

Immediately after crossing the bridges, the route swings right and onto a grassy trail path that follows the river again. The tree line to the right hand side is very thick and completely blocks out any view across the river. The embankment to the left grows in size as the runners progress along this section. Once at the far end, the route turns to the left and runners negotiate the uphill trail section. This is only short but is proper single track trail territory with quite a few protruding tree roots and overgrown bushes to the side.

the beginning of the off-road section

At the top the runners follow the only possible route around the the left and run along the outer edge of the football fields, adjacent to the road. At the end of this grass section, there is a lamp post which runners must use as a marker to run around (ie DO NOT cut across the football pitch to the left hand side). They are now back on tarmac and head slightly downhill on the twisty path back towards the double bridge.

runners pass the cafe twice during the run

Once across the bridges they turn right as they return to the main section of the park. Here the tarmac is a little worn and cracked, but it is a pleasant section through shade of the trees. This path takes runners past the park cafe and then swings to the right where the path narrows and the run goes through a heavily shaded path which runs adjacent to the playground. At the end of this path there is an old stone bridge - this is one of the arches of Dartford's medieval bridge. It was rebuilt in 1923 across Dartford's other river, the River Cran, which now flows underground.

the medieval bridge (turn right as you pass it)

Turning right at the medieval bridge, the runners now follow the path around, where runners can admire the stunning flower beds in the formal area of the park. Just outside the park, the runners may notice the red bricked building which is Dartford Library - this was opened to the public on 1 January 1916 and its dome was used as an air raid watch post during the second world war. It has also featured on the TV show - Britain's Most Haunted.

the central path and dartford library (runners run towards the camera)

As they run adjacent to the library the runners might catch a glimpse of the Dartford War Memorial which commemorates over 300 Dartford men who perished in the first and second world wars, and also in the Korean War. It was erected in 1922 and is now a grade 2 listed building. Turning left at the junction, the runners now head along the central path through the formal area. On the right is an area where the gardeners can get creative, which usually features an intricate design made from flowers. At the time of writing, the design is of a poppy. Really impressive work. This then leads past the rose garden and towards the bandstand.

the bandstand

The runners take a right hand turn just before the bandstand and follow the path which forms a loop around the bandstand green. They now take the long sweeping right hander where they will encounter fellow runners on a brief two way stretch. All that is left is a long tarmac straight that heads back towards the athletics track. At the end of the tarmac, the runners are directed onto the grass and through the trees to avoid any conflict with vehicles that could be using the access road. This completes the first lap.

the straight path that heads back to the athletics track

Lap two is almost identical but with the addition of a short out and back. When reaching the first corner on lap two, the runners will be directed to their right to run along 'The Stones' or 'Mick Jagger's leg' (I'm not sure which one works best yet). It is just a short section where runners need to loop around Mick Jagger, the Vox amp, and the Dartford Warbler before heading back and continuing the lap as described above. When reaching the end of lap two, they can simply enter the finish funnel which will be set up on the grass in almost the same place as where the run started.

sir mick

Barcode scanning will take place right next to the finish line and the runners can then head into the Dartford Harriers clubhouse for some refreshments and post run analysis. I have run the course with the running buggy and the only part that would be of any concern is the trail section which is narrow, bumpy and uphill. It's worth having a look at this section to make sure you are comfortable with it before attempting a buggy run, especially if you aren't used to off-road buggy running.

the stunning flower beds

I really like the course, but then I am heavily biased. It's pretty fast and also features lots of different sections to keep things fresh throughout the run. Dartford has a great running community spread across its running clubs and groups, so I think this will be a good thing for the area. Of course, attracting existing runners is the easy part - I really hope we can provide a welcoming, inclusive environment for any locals looking to get out and enjoy their local park and improve their health/fitness at the same time. I'm really looking forward to the Dartford running community becoming even stronger than it is already. All we need are a few volunteers each Saturday morning to make it happen!

Dartford parkrun are on Facebook and Twitter.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Rocky Road Trail Race 2014

When I cycled on the mountain bike trails at the cyclopark, I couldn't help but wonder what it might be like to run on these trails. Then, by some strange coincidence, the Rocky Road Trail Series at the cyclopark was announced. It was to be a series of three races with one each in May, June and July. I was out of the country for the May race and the June race was two days after the North Downs Run, and I didn't want to ask any more of my body after running that. Thankfully the July race fell quite nicely and there was nothing to stop me from entering this one.

#teamslgr [photo: dani]

This race took place on a Tuesday evening, which is usually our main club night. But with this event being a one-off, I thought it would make a nice change for any of my team mates that fancied mixing things up a little. So in the weeks leading up to the race, I spread the word on the So Let's Go Running Facebook page with the goal to turn the cyclopark black and orange. In the end, we had a very respectable turnout of 11 of us from our club. I also took the family along and asked the wife if she wouldn't mind taking some photos of us all as we raced. Some members of SLGR registered (£8) in advance, but I waited until the day and signed up upon arrival at the cyclopark.

walking to the start line [photo: dani]

The series was put on by Steve Cable and his wonderful team of volunteers. Steve also organises the free, weekly cyclorun (facebook), which is 5k around the tarmac cycle track every Sunday morning at 8am. Steve was one of the first people that I bumped into and he had just finished marking out the course. I was going to recce it before the race, but time ticked by, people arrived, and in the end it just didn't happen. I did manage to squeeze in a short warmup run on part the trails with a couple of SLGR runners a few minutes before the start of the race.

the start line in the gravel [photo: steve cable]

Race start time was 7.30pm, and a few minutes before that, we were lead from the main reception building to a wider area where Steve marked a line in the gravel - this would act as the start and the finish. The course was a two-lap circuit of the mountain bike trails that run around the outer edge of park - they have different levels of difficulty with the black routes being the hardest. Underfoot the course was a mixture of some gravelly stones, dirt trail, rocky paths, and big rocks (or you could call them boulders). The terrain was mildly undulating and featured some very twisty sections of single track mountain bike trails.

and we're off... [photo: dani]

I lined up at the front, knowing that I would need a good start to avoid being caught up in the crowd once the route reached the single track which would make overtaking very difficult. So I started well, but made the slight error of being too polite as we approached the single track and I ended up out of position with no easy way to move through the field. I stayed patient and held back, then there was an opportunity to overtake on a corner, but again I was too polite and actually lost a place. I was now in 5th place, knowing that I was running at a slower pace than I would have liked and with no easy way overtake. The worst thing was that I could see the leader pulling away from us.

lap one [photo: dani]

I stayed patient as we followed the twisty path through the first kilometre of the course and then I managed to find a couple of points that were wide enough to make some overtaking moves. By the end of the first kilometre, I had made it up into third position, but was again stuck and could only watch as the leader disappeared further into the distance. Then I found an another overtaking point, moved into second place and had the task of trying to claw back some of the lost ground.

at the far end of the course about to enter a black route [photo: steve cable]

I was now 1.5km into the race, and at this stage, the leader must have had a 20-30 second lead, so I just stuck with a good strong pace and slowly I could see that I was gaining on him. As I came back past the main central area (2.8km), I had cut the gap down to about 10-15 seconds. By the 3.3km point, I had caught up with him but the narrow trail paths prevented me from overtaking. So I spent the next 1.5km on his tail waiting for the widest of the overtaking points to appear, and when it did, I took the opportunity to move past.

the final stretch [photo: dani]

I was now in the lead and did not want to lose it. I had a sense that I had opened up a little gap, but I wasn't sure if it would be enough. I was thinking about the team and how great it would be if we could get a win. With that thought in my head, I pushed as hard as I could along the final kilometre. The setting sun was behind me and I could see my shadow stretching out in front of me, I knew that if my competitor was gaining, I would see his shadow before he had an opportunity to pass. However, it never appeared and I crossed the finish line in first position and gave #teamslgr their first proper outright race win! A proud moment.

post-race analysis [photo: dani]

I had finished 22 seconds ahead of the second placed runner. I was really pleased with my efforts to catch him and then to still have enough left in me to pull away through that final kilometre (my gps data). After a few cups of water, I chatted to some other finishers and then got in position to cheer on the rest of the SLGR gang as they approached the finish line. They all looked really strong as they pushed through the last section - hopefully that's a sign that the Tuesday and Thursday sessions paying off!

#teamslgr [photo: dani]

Team SLGR results (overall position / name / time):

1. Steven Stockwell - 23.56
9. John Annett - 29.00
10. Aaron Bardoe - 30.14
16. Gary Clements - 33.02
17. Dave Reid - 33.05
18. Chris Preston - 33.07
19. David Cooper - 33.53
23. Stephanie Ham - 36.29
24. Janice Munday - 36.49
25. Rachael Bignell - 38.01
30. Stephanie Mills - 40.37

my winners' medal [photo: dani]

The prize giving ceremony took place on the patio area outside the cafe. I knew my result, and was very excited to collect my winners' medal from Steve. But there were also team prizes up for grabs. We had taken quite a large group down and I was hoping that we would be in with a good chance of another prize. In the end it turns out that we won the mens and the womens team prizes with our top three finishers of each gender picking up a bottle of wine each. The full results can be found on the cyclorun facebook page.

a perfect end to a brilliant evening [photo: dani]

This was a really good trail race - the terrain was much rockier than what you would usually find on a typical south east England trail race. The rocky nature of the course made this more like a mountain-style trail race but without the huge inclines. I really loved it and I'm already looking forward to next year's series.

To top it all off, the amazing sunset really did turn the cyclopark black and orange... What a great evening for #TeamSLGR!

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Milton Keynes parkrun

I've been to Milton Keynes a few times. The first time was on 29 May 1993 to see Guns 'N' Roses perform at the National Bowl. I went back two years later, on 29 July 1995, to see REM play at the same venue. My overriding memory was of a town of roundabouts and dual carriageways. So I was intrigued as to what delights I might find at Milton Keynes parkrun - twice voted 'the most beautiful parkrun' in a poll conducted by the parkrun show. I'd had it on my list of venues to visit for ages, but it wasn't until I received an invite from Peter, who is a regular runner here, and a fellow parkrun tourist, that I finally decided to visit.

willen lakeside park

Milton Keynes is a 'new city' and was developed in the 1960s. It took its name from the existing Milton Keynes Village - the village still exists with the boundaries on Milton Keynes which contains the area's oldest surviving domestic building - a 14th century manor house. Nearby is Bletchley Park, which was home to the 'Government Code and Cypher School', which cracked the famous Enigma Code. To the north east of the main town centre, in the Willen district, is Willen Lakeside Park.

these features may have had something to do with the IF festival

The lake is one of the largest purpose-built stormwater balancing lakes in the UK. It features two separate basins. The north basin is a haven for wildlife and is home to many species of wading birds, fish, and insects, while the south basin has been designed for recreational use. There is a play-and-display car park at the south west corner of the lake, charges are fairly reasonable; 80p for an hour, £1.20 for two. I arrived at 8am and decided to stick in £2.20 to cover me for up to four hours so I didn't have to watch the clock post-run.

gathering pre-run

Any locals that choose to travel by bicycle will be able to take advantage of the 272.5km 'redway' network of cycle paths, known locally as 'redways'. Upon arrival, cyclists will find some cycle racks next to the south lake just outside the LA Fitness Health Club and Willen Lake Camping. There are more bicycle racks further along behind the cafe. The area just outside the cafe is a central point where many runners and volunteers congregate before the start of the run. Others go straight to the start. Just before joining the runners, I popped into the Premier Inn which has toilets that are open to the public.

the path adjacent to the grand union canal

At this point it is worth noting that there has been a very recent course change at this venue. There's not a huge difference, but as of 19 July 2014, the official course page still shows the previous route - I'm sure it'll be updated soon. The run no longer starts adjacent to the lake. The new course starts on the path that runs from the lake/cafe area towards the Grand Union Canal, where you can also see the Gulliver's Land theme park (apparently the best family day out in Milton Keynes) over to the right. This new starting point gives a much wider start than the old one, so really helps out with the approx 400 runners that run here each week.

under the H5 / grand union canal on the left

The course is almost completely tarmac, is largely flat (but not completely), and is a one lapper, or more specifically, a point-to-point course (oh yes, one big 5k loop!). From the start, the run heads towards the Canal up the very slightest of inclines and turns right at the end where the runners run along a very neat line of trees that follow the line of the canal. Unfortunately, the runners don't really see much of the water as it is hidden behind some thick bushes for the majority of the section. The runners soon pass underneath the H5 Portway dual carriageway. Then a short while later they turn right and leave the canal behind them.

the pagoda steps (this is where the zig zags are)

The next path drops slightly downhill and then brings the runners to a footbridge which passes over Brickhill Street. Next up, the runners run towards a staircase which leads up to the Willen Peace Pagoda. However parkrun doesn't do steps, so the runners have to negotiate the zig zags to reach the top, before turning left and circumnavigating field which contains the Willen Lake labyrinth and then running adjacent to the north basin of Willen Lake.

the peace pagoda

The Peace Pagoda can now be seen to the runners' right - It was built by the monks and nuns of Nipponzan Myohoji as a symbol of world brotherhood. Nearby are 1,000 cherry trees to commemorate the victims of war, and messages of hope decorate the One World tree. The runners then reach and pass the 'circle of hearts medicine wheel', which is a stone structure (or stone circle) set on sacred green space. The wheel is made up of 108 limestones from the village of West Underwood.

circle of hearts medicine wheel

From here the route passes underneath the H5 Portway and brings the runners out on the northern bank of the southern basin. The runners follow this path all the way along the northern bank under, which takes them back under the H5 Portway, over a small bridge which crosses the link between the two basins, and then back under the H5 Portway one final time.

runners on the final corner

The runners now follow the path along the eastern edge of the basin, which runs parallel to the River Ouzel. This path leads around to the southern edge of the lake, which passes the Ariel Extreme adventure experience - It contains a climbing wall, zip wire, and other similar things including rope bridges etc. All that's left is for the runners to go around the last corner and pass through the finish funnel, which is located right next to the lake.

it all ends right next to the lake

Barcode scanning takes place right next to the finish. There are a large number of runners here (342 on the day I visited) so in order to cope with the numbers, they have three volunteers with barcode scanners on duty. After this, the runners and volunteers head over to the cafe for some refreshments. I popped over but when I saw a queue and thought about my journey back home to Kent, I decided that I better get a move on. 

time for some scanning
I always enjoy a visit to a new parkrun, and this was no different. However, the weather was so, so humid (even worse than the previous week, I'd say) that I didn't really enjoy the action of running. I was however pleased that I had finally made the effort to run at this venue - my 80th different one (and 19th consecutive sub-20 minute parkrun). From next week I am committing myself to the new Dartford parkrun for a while, so the touring will have to take a back seat. However, I will return to it when possible. With the lack of parkrun touring, I'm looking forward to a smaller petrol bill for the next few months!

Friday, 18 July 2014

Riddlesdown parkrun 166

I put the touring on hold to visit my parkrun home this weekend. After all, I couldn't miss the third year anniversary celebration event! After picking up one of the volunteers, Jenny (barcode scanner), we arrived in good time. I quickly found Graeme and shortly after, we headed off for an easy warm circuit around the downs. It had been largely dry, but a last minute downpour had occurred. We were pleased to find that course conditions were still very good.

(photo to follow)
I had it mind to go for a fast time, and possibly a new course best. I lined up at the front and headed off with the front runners. Within the first couple of hundred metres we had started to thin out and I found myself running in second position, but with the first placed runner slower but surely pulling away from me.

approx 2.3 kilometres into the run

I hit the half-way point in 9.15, very good I thought. The second half of the run was a lot tougher, not because of the natural effect of running hard, but due to the humidity. The weather had felt reasonably good when I first arrived, but it was obviously fooling all of the runners out there today. I was working so hard that I was sure I'd be on for a massive new course personal best.

my daughter in her bespoke volunteering jacket

I finally crossed the finish line in a time of 18.52, which was a new course personal best by a whopping 2 seconds! After talking to a few of the other runners, I discovered that many of them were slower than they felt they had worked. So I'm glad that it wasn't just me. I wandered over to the registration table to find my daughter helping out with barcode scanning - she looked like she was having fun.

start 'em young

Some of the runners and volunteers then moved on to Warlingham School for the proper birthday celebrations and the annual prize giving ceremony. The points prizes were awarded and the real stars, the volunteers, were given a few tokens of appreciation. Then, completely unbeknown and unexpected to me, I was called up to be awarded with a bespoke Riddlesdown parkrun / 7t coffee mug for services to social media. I was also dubbed 'the invisible volunteer' which I really like.

the invisible volunteer

After that, I enjoyed some cake and ran around a bit with Matilda before heading off to stay in London where I would be running the following day's British 10k as a VIP guest of New Balance. All very exciting!
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